Act: Inspiration

Fighting for our Lives

June 2, 2017

This is my first sermon, so I hope you’ll forgive me if I ramble a little.

I know that a good sermon should have a story in it, so I’ve tried to do that. But I also feel a real responsibility to convey not just a little bit about my own journey, but about what I think the world needs from all of us right now.

My neighbor John is a minister, and a friend. I was telling him that I thought I’d do a bad job with this, and he told me that preachers have a saying: God doesn’t call the qualified, he qualifies the called. I’m not a religious person, and I don’t think I believe in god, but I got to thinking about it, and I realized that that’s an excellent way to think about direct action. The five of us who shut off the pipelines are often thanked for our “bravery”, but I don’t think any of us feels brave at all. We don’t do these things because we’re brave; we become brave by doing them.

This is probably obvious, but I wasn’t born shutting off pipelines. I wasn’t an organizer. I wasn’t even an activist, except for a year or two in my early twenties.

For decades, I held many jobs, but my primary identity was as a writer. Like most writers, I’m an introvert, happiest in quiet spaces and small groups of loved ones. I was also a reader, though, as well as a lover of nature, and a traveler when I could manage it: biking through Europe, walking through the Turkish countryside, and generally having a deep appreciation for the multitude of lives, human and nonhuman, with whom we share the planet.

I first read about climate change in 1989, thanks to Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature. It would be an exaggeration to say I never slept well again, but there’s also some truth to it—I had been troubled since childhood, by the signs of illness in our relationship with the rest of the world. I recognized animals as kin—as neighbors, at least—and couldn’t quite get used to the fact that we were wiping species from existence altogether. I was viscerally disturbed at the thought of plastics that wouldn’t degrade for hundreds of years, as well as at nuclear waste that would essentially never degrade. So reading Bill’s book gave me a sick feeling of recognition: it made sense in a horrible way, because it warned that all of this might have consequences that went far beyond the ones we understood.

But like most people, I went on living my life. I was working and writing a novel, and every now and then my consciousness was punctuated by a scientific dispatch, always couched in uncertainties, from Jim Hansen or another climate scientist, filtered through the daily newspapers. They were increasingly alarmed, so I was too, and heat waves like the one that killed tens of thousands in Europe in 2003 registered as deeply ominous. But I wasn’t a politician or a scientist—not even a nonfiction writer, though I occasionally tried to make sense of my worries that way. What could I do?

It got harder and harder to live with my worry, and with my own inaction. I felt paralyzed, but also disgusted with myself; I had worked for NOW in my early 20’s, and briefly been a kind of accidental activist. We had won a local fight for the dignity of the maids at a Boston hotel, and had helped stop the appointment of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. We had failed to pass the ERA in its final go-round, but we had also organized for the first big gay rights march in DC. But though I saw that activism could matter both politically and socially, it never really came naturally, and after awhile I faded back into a more private life. I voted; I signed petitions and gave money when I could; I lived modestly and carefully; I tried to treat everyone well. Wasn’t it okay to live a normal life?

In 2010, flooding in Pakistan, where my brother-in-law’s family lives, killed thousands of people, destroyed nearly two million houses, and caused widespread malnutrition. Two years later, hundreds of thousands were still displaced. Many still are.

So in 2011, when James Hansen said that KXL and the exploitation of the tar sands would be “game over for the climate”, I understood that no, simply living a normal life was not really okay. People were dying, and this was only the beginning. So when McKibben and others called for civil disobedience at the White House, I decided to go. I tried to persuade a friend to come with me, and we argued. “I just don’t think that’s going to help solve climate change,” she said. “What else are you doing next week that has a better chance of doing so?” I replied, as much to persuade myself as anything.

It was heartening to be amongst others as worried as I was, and Hurricane Irene hit when I was there; the howl of the wind strengthened my resolve. I came back to Seattle, and knew that I had to keep going, but there was no climate movement in Seattle then, so I wasn’t sure what to do. I organized a few small, quixotic-feeling protests and vigils with a new friend, and after awhile, he and I joined with some other people he knew, and started 350 Seattle, where we organized modestly larger protests in our first couple of years—and one or two of them didn’t feel quixotic at all.

And I kept writing—time after time, another version of the same story: people are already suffering, we are all at unimaginable risk, we must change now.

On April 5th, Carbon Brief released an analysis indicating that at current rates of emissions, we had only 4.1 years left if we wanted even a 2/3 chance of remaining below 1.5°C of warming, which was the goal of the Paris agreement. Beyond that point, systems start to fall apart, and very frightening feedback loops kick in.

I don’t know about you, but I’d like more than a 2/3 chance of avoiding that. And to be clear, when they say 4.1 years, they don’t mean and then we have to get serious about emissions reductions. They mean: and then we have to stop emitting. Completely.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think we’ll be ready for that in 4.1 years.

Also: 6 weeks have passed. It’s now less than four years.

You may have seen the New York Times piece on Antarctica this week; scientists believe that we may already have reached the point where Antarctic ice sheet collapse is unstoppable, even if we do end fossil fuel use immediately. The same piece mentions, almost as an afterthought, that current modeling has worst-case sea level rise by the end of the century at double what was predicted only four years ago.

Or you may have seen the Washington Post story this week on the “quiet springs” resulting from the loss of bird life across the continent as climate change disrupts mating and migration.

If these stories feel like a barrage, and unbearable, I’m deeply sympathetic; that’s how they feel to me too. But they are nothing like the barrage that the facts will be—and in our lifetimes, not just those of our children or grandchildren.

So yes: this is the moment when we must act boldly on climate, because we are nearing a point where our window of opportunity for a decent future will disappear.

And here we are, seemingly paralyzed by our politics, and having moved in negative seconds, it seems, from “I don’t have to think about this yet” to “it’s too late”.

So what can we do?

First, let’s dispel the “it’s too late” idea. Too late for what? Too late for whom? The difference between some regions becoming unlivable for people (with the remaining regions welcoming those people) and all regions becoming unlivable for people is a difference very much worth fighting for. The difference between ten percent biodiversity loss and 95% is also a difference very much worth fighting for.

So we’ll fight.

Here in the Northwest we’ve won several big, big battles—against oil train spurs and coal terminals, against Arctic drilling, even against working with banks that fund projects like the Dakota Access Pipeline. We have taken projects that were absolutely business as usual, and we have stopped them cold.

I’m very proud of this; I worked very hard in those fights, and I think they’re an incredibly important part of our planet’s immune system. Such projects, at this moment, are death: therefore, we fight them.

But it’s important to admit that I didn’t think we would win them. I fought because I knew deep in my bones that climate change is the defining moral issue of our era—a problem that you and I help to cause every day of the week, while our brothers and sisters elsewhere suffer the effects. I wanted to do the right thing, so I fought. I organized people to go to hearings and protests, I created mailing lists, I sent a million emails and some petitions; I tried to understand each fight and its context so I could write fact sheets and give testimony and talk to press as effectively as possible. I’m still an introvert, and none of this came naturally, but I knew that it was the way that a non-scientist, non-politician—that anyone, really—could make a real difference by sheer effort alone. I knew that my own voice was not enough, but that many voices had a chance. Or, to be more honest, I thought we had to try; I didn’t really think we had a chance.

Winning came as a profound surprise.

Against the enormity of climate change, what impact do these wins have? I could list many—by stopping terminals, we change the economics of coal, and help to speed the transition to renewables. Thanks in part to us, there have been no oil spills in the fragile Arctic seas this year. And over the course of the next year or so I believe that we can make the financing of projects like these toxic to banks that have reputations they care about; if they are difficult to finance, then that too will speed the end of these projects as viable investments.

But the biggest impact, if we do things right, is that we begin to understand our power. Because it’s not actually climate change we’re fighting—climate change is a natural response, like a person running a fever. What we’re fighting is the agent of that fever—and that’s fossil fuel use. Which is widespread, for sure, but it’s a human artifact subject to social and political forces—by which I mean you and me.

Once I understood that we really could do these things—when Shell announced the end of its Arctic drilling—something deep inside me shifted. What had been an overwhelming problem and a source of deep despair became—not instead but also—something that I personally could have a meaningful impact on, because I had found a community of people who believed in this work and were committed to trying.  I had helped to build that community, in fact.

Before, I had been acting from a sense of responsibility; I could no longer look myself in the mirror if I wasn’t doing all I could to change things. After, I was acting from a sense of agency. And I began to understand viscerally that to not act to whatever degree one is capable, is to give consent to what is happening now, which within decades—scientists have made clear—will amount to the end of the world humans have known since the dawn of civilization. The fossil fuel companies need our consent; they run millions of miles of pipeline through our farmland, thousands of tankers in our waters, and hundreds of oil trains through our towns. If we don’t let them, they can’t destroy our world.

Justin Trudeau—who will come to regret this fact—put it succinctly: governments grant permits, but only communities can grant permission.

How do we grant permission? By allowing business as usual to continue even when we know that it is threatening everyone and everything that we love. How hard is it, really, to shut off a pipeline? How hard is it to go through the stress of a trial, and maybe even go to jail? Not anything like as hard as living with a destabilized world is going to be—as it is already for hundreds of thousands of people, displaced from their homes by flooding or drought. It’s not even as hard as would it be for me to reach old age having seen terrible things, and know that I had done little to try to stop them.

Make no mistake—we can change the world. Again, it’s not climate change we’re fighting, it’s just fossil fuel use—and the people who insist we need it. I was one of a few dozen core people who put the final fistfuls of straw on the camel’s back of Shell’s Arctic drilling—building upon the work of others, and requiring the love and skills and time of many others…but still, on a numbers basis alone, we were by no means impressive: just a couple thousand people all told, probably. And on a financial level, we had next to nothing. Yet we raised holy hell, and Shell blinked.

And on October 11, I was one of just five people who shut down pipelines representing 15% of US daily oil usage. Five people.

Did we stop the burning of tar sands? Did we stop the US purchase of tar sands? Did we change the fact that there are tar sands in my gas tank right now? We did not.

But direct action is about many things, and one of those things is the power of embodying what needs to happen. What needs to happen now is that we need to stop the flow of oil. We need to imagine a world in which it stops not because we’ve burned fossil fuels right up to the moment of collapse, but because we woke up, saw that we had the power to change things, and set about changing them with all of the focus of people who see a tsunami in the far distance; metaphorically speaking, you have time to call those who might not see it, and maybe even to pack a bag. You do not have time to sit on the porch and wait till you’re sure it’s really big enough to be worth avoiding.

Less than four years at current rates of emissions. If in two years we manage to scale back twenty percent, and then twenty percent again the year after that, we’ll have a little more time—and if we can get to that place, it will be because we have managed to move from a specious debate to real plan, which means that the energies of many of us will be freed up to focus on a hundred other things, from regenerative agriculture to city policies that model a fast-changing world focused explicitly on justice and openness to those in need—especially migrants from places on the bleeding edge of climate instability, like East Africa, Syria, Yemen, and Louisiana. We are the richest country in history, and the companies most responsible for this problem—companies that have known about it since the sixties—are the richest companies in history. The technology that we need exists, as does the money.  If we cannot use the word “reparations” freely for this—what does it exist for? If we cannot change our lives to make room for those whose lives we devastated, who are we?

As the Antarctic ice sheet is showing us, there is a great deal of instability that is already baked in to the climate system. But for a little while longer, we still have the chance for a beautiful world—a world in which we are honest about our responsibilities and our interdependence, and in which we set ourselves on a path back to climate stability. If we can bring the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere back down to 350 ppm by the end of this century, we can get there. If we can’t, it may be thousands of years before the Earth recovers its balance.

Have we forgotten how to be brave? Have we forgotten how to sacrifice?

Normal politics has utterly failed us; we know that voting and petitions won’t do it. So what will you do about that? What can you imagine doing, knowing that your family and everyone else’s is on the line? Can you join an oil train blockade? Can you plan a lock-down at the Governor’s office to demand that he press Trudeau to revoke the Trans Mountain expansion permit? Can you shut down a bank branch to demand that the bank no longer finance projects that we know would are disastrous? Can you demand that Kirkland greatly improve its mass transit, so that ambitiously reducing fossil fuel use within a year or two is more feasible?

If we can imagine climate change bringing mass disruption all over the world, but we can’t imagine doing those things, then we don’t have a problem of climate change: we have a failure of imagination, and a failure of agency. We have to rise to this challenge.

Can we have a future without fossil fuels? Yes, we can—we know, in fact, that that is the only future we have. Can we start it in the next few years?

Sure we can. Other countries have already done so. The fossil fuel companies cannot devastate this world without our consent—we have to stand up for all that is good and beautiful, and consent instead to the still, small voice inside us. We have to reclaim our moral imaginations. We must be—we will be—brave and resilient.

We face a profoundly uncertain future, but all we really need for the road ahead is our moral compass and our deep and abiding love. I am asking you—I am begging you—to think about what that means to you, and what you can do rise to the challenge.

My life, and your life, and all the life around us—they’re worth fighting for.

Emily Johnston

Emily Johnston is a poet, scribe, climate activist, runner, builder. Her book, Her Animals, is out now:

Tags: climate change, climate change activism